Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots

By Robert D. Bullard | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 10

Farmworkers and Pesticides

Marion Moses

Widespread concern about pesticides was first sparked by the publication of Rachel Carson's now classic book Silent Spring ( Carson 1962). The mainstream environmental movement has since focused considerable attention on the effects of pesticides on wildlife, food quality, and the health of the general public. Yet, far less attention has been focused on the members of our population most at risk from pesticides -- the nation's farmworkers. This oversight is very troubling. Farmworkers labor under the worst conditions of any group of workers in the United States. They suffer from many kinds of toxic exposure and a paucity of legal protections. Their neglect by most mainstream environmental organizations is a political scandal.

The total number of U.S. farmworkers is not known. However, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates there are two million hired workers and three million farmer owners and their families (unpaid) working on the two million farms in the United States. The leading states in number of hired farmworkers are California, Florida, and Texas ( U.S. Department of Agriculture 1990).The largest amount of U.S. farm acreage is in field crops such as corn, wheat, soybeans, and cotton, whose cultivation and harvesting are almost completely mechanized. Yet, labor-intensive crops, primarily perishable fruits and vegetables, still require large numbers of workers for hand-cultivating and harvesting, the major work of the migrant and seasonal farmworker.

Work in agriculture poses many hazards, ranging from injuries and deaths caused by accidents with farm equipment -- tractors, harvesters, ladders, irrigation devices, etc. -- to heat stress, bee stings, snake bites, dust, airborne allergens, and noise. The most insidious hazard, however, is pesticide exposure. Almost all commercial crops are heavily and repeatedly sprayed with pesticides, and the great majority are toxic chemicals that pose acute and chronic health problems to exposed workers.

The largest single user of pesticides in the United States is agriculture, which accounts for 80 percent of total use: over one billion

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